What I Look for in a Fiction Submission

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October 31, 2011 by The Citron Review

When I began thinking about this question I immediately thought of James Engelhardt, the former managing editor of Prairie Schooner. I did a brief internship with them a few years ago, and I asked him pretty much the same question after he dropped a stack of manuscripts in my lap to read. While I honestly can’t remember his exact response, it was something along the lines of “You’ll know it when you see it.”

Now I know this is vague and no help to potential submitters. I felt just as lost that day, certain without more direction I was going to embarrass myself by recommending the wrong piece of writing to him. My anxiety grew when I realized that most of the submissions I read for Prairie Schooner were quite good. I remember having a pile of “yes” manuscripts next to me and it towered over the “no” pile. The manuscripts were clean, competently written, the writers followed all the rules of grammar and style and it was clear many of them were quite talented. I felt a little overwhelmed wondering how I would ever choose just a few to recommend and pass along – and then my entire perspective was altered. I read a story that changed everything. It wasn’t until I was finished with the piece that I realized that I was on the edge of my seat, that I had been holding my breath and I had completely forgotten where I was and what I was doing. I’m lucky I even remembered my name. Suddenly, everything else in my “yes” pile became a “no.”

I discovered that well-written is no match for fiction that pierces you so deeply that you are going to carry the mark of it with you for weeks, months, maybe even the rest of your life. I would ask any potential submitter to really think about the emotional resonance of their piece before they send it to me. I want work that burdens my soul. I want work that compels me to run from my seat to the nearest person and insist they read the story in my hands. The topic is irrelevant, and I’m even willing to overlook a typo or two, all a story really needs is to kick me in the gut. And if you still don’t understand what I’m talking about, consider this quote:

“Find the key emotion; this may be all you need know to find your short story.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald


Heather Luby 
Fiction Editor
The Citron Review

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